Why I am a web developer

"Why do you want to build websites?"

That was the question posed to me by my boyfriend a couple of nights ago, as we discussed my latest half-baked plan for building world-changing software. A very talented programmer himself, he's more of a generalist than I am, so I think the way my ideas nearly always boil down to "this will make it easier to build websites" confuses him. He doesn't understand my focus on this one, singular problem, in a world of interesting programming problems. He meant "why do you always want to build websites?"

Then last night, a random stranger emailed me about Makomi, my currently-paused prototype to, yes, make it easier and faster to build websites, in this case by providing a GUI that runs on your local machine and lets you draw a functional interface and bind it to data. I still believe it's a good idea, but a ton of work, and better for non-technical people to put together prototypes than my original idea, which was to have it adopted by full-stack web developers like myself, to accelerate their work (the YCombinator-backed Appcubator is a hosted version of the same idea, though thankfully my commit logs verify I started working on the idea before they announced themselves, or I would feel like a plagiarist).

The stranger and I got to talking about Thinkstack, my latest idea. I gave him the elevator pitch -- you'll be getting it too, in a follow-up post to this one. He liked the idea but said it's missing the "Why" (a reference to this TED talk, which I'd seen before but forgotten about). That, and my boyfriend's question, finally crystallized for me how to begin this series of blog posts about the state of web development and how I intend to make it better: I have to supply the Why, even if it is somewhat embarrassingly personal. Watch out, because this language is gonna get flowery.

The web is my light and my salvation

As I've written previously, my teenage years were extremely unhappy. I was a closeted gay kid in a small, deeply conservative country where being gay was and is still illegal. Confused, isolated and suicidal, Internet access arrived in January of 1996, a few months after I turned fifteen. The Internet, and the web in particular, saved my life.

People will sometimes flippantly say "X saved my life" about a piece of technology that they love. The web is not like that for me. A heartbreaking 30-40% of LGBT youth attempt suicide, and the web is what stopped me joining that group. I had a plan -- I had more than one plan. I had written drafts of the note. The web is what saved me. I have no record of the first article I found, but it had a title very much like "I think I might be gay, now what do I do?"

The advice in that article is so simple as to be banal, and 17 years later the answers to questions like "Am I normal?" and "How do I learn to like myself?" seem to be stupidly obvious, especially if you grew up in a rich western country where progress on these things has come faster than other places. But to a gay kid with no other sources of information and nobody he felt he could talk to, the sentences "Yes, you are absolutely normal. Many people are gay" were life-changing, life-saving. I read them over and over for reassurance. I clung to them like a drowning man clutches a life preserver.

It is hard to find the words that express how powerful, how important this basic, positive information was. As tears spill down my cheeks and onto my keyboard, these words look too simple, too subdued, too prosaic to convey the effect they had. My teenage mind was a dark maelstrom of guilt and shame and grief and fear and longing. The web was a lighthouse that threw a single, bright light of hope into my world. I was still in a storm, but suddenly I knew there was a shore. I was still close to drowning, but finally I had a direction in which to swim.

And then I went looking for more. And boy did I find more. Oasis Magazine ("blog" had not yet been coined) was full of stories of kids my age, wrestling with the same questions, talking about coming out to friends and family, showing parents and friends could be accepting. The Youth Lists introduced me to happy, healthy gay kids who I could talk to about my life, crushes at school, my frustrations, without fear of rejection or judgement or exposure. Again, it all sounds so basic, so simple. But I can't emphasize enough how much difference they made to me. I need you to shout these words in your head: THE WEB SAVED MY LIFE.

But that wasn't the web, that was people, right? It may seem strange that I have these intense feelings of gratitude towards the medium itself, rather than the people who used it. And of course it's true: the people were the ones who saved me, and over the years I have thrown actual money, not just overwrought words, at the organizations that helped me through those years. But those people always existed: the web was what got their words through to me. The web was how I found out it could get better, years before that was a catchphrase. Without the lighthouse, they would just have been helpless bystanders, watching another body wash up on the shore.

The web is my guide and my teacher

In the years since then, the web has helped me over and over, not just through that crucial period. Starting with Angelfire and HotDog website builder (a GUI for making websites! what a concept!), the web showed me that anybody could add to it, and showed me how. Starting with no more knowledge about what I was doing than how an if-then statement worked, PHP's documentation taught me how to build a website that could do stuff, not just sit there.

It's so basic to how the world works now that we don't even notice it anymore, but the idea that anybody can add a page to the web was a fundamental, ground-breaking innovation. In those days, my little website thrown together in an afternoon looked only a little bit less professional than that of the New York Times; we were all learning how to build the web at the same time. The concept of publishing authority, that "it must be true, it's in the newspaper" became self-evidently nonsensical. Yahoo's web directory blew the doors open, allowing you to follow random walks through a forest of information that was already beginning to seem infinite (Yahoo listed my personal website, and that listing is still there, a discovery that blows my mind).

Then Google turned the frustration of poring through that infinity into one of astonishing ease. Some people reading this now will be too young to remember, but the "I'm feeling lucky" button was, at the time, an astonishing boast: "we are so sure the first result will be the one you want, we'll take you straight there". Web search was, prior to that, a matter of trying multiple combinations of search terms, over and over, and clicking through dozens of pages of links to see if there could be anything relevant. When was the last time you clicked past even the first page of a search result?

Now the web knows the answer to every question I've ever thought to ask it -- yes, even that question. Anything I want to learn, any worry I want assuaged or confirmed, any idle curiosity, flows through the magic of HTTP to me, first through wires, nowadays through thin air to a tiny magic rectangle I can hold in my hand. But it's still the same web, even though the sites have changed and everything is more complicated now.

The web has everything we know on it, and you can read it all. Nothing's stopping you. Maybe the fact that that still blows my mind marks me as an old fogey, but honestly, how can that not blow your mind? And people are adding to it, constantly, every day, writing detailed research, quick tutorials, fiery opinions, thoughtful advice, answers to each others questions, beautiful prose, terrifying depths of depravity and hate, joy and sadness, love and anger, sympathy and delight. You can listen to them doing it, their contributions turned into music. All life is here; just hit the right buttons and go looking for it. How do you stop reading that? What could possibly ever tear you away from an artifact of such limitless potential?

How can you not want to build websites?

And that's why, since 1996, "building websites" has been pretty much the only thing I've done. Not always well, not always or even mostly towards some noble goal, but continuously. The web saved my life and then built me a new one. A single living entity, it touches everything in the world and is always getting better -- and I can help. I owe it so much; if I can help it out, make it better in any small way, how can I possibly refuse? And if I can make it easier for other people to help make it better, then my efforts are multiplied.

I am a web developer. I develop the web. And all of this is Why.